Facing the Syrian Dilemma

It’s painful to watch President Obama stretched over the Syrian rack. His basic dilemma is that with Russia’s entry onto the scene he can’t afford to cede ground to Moscow or Teheran. But with al-Qaeda affiliated forces now making up 7 of the 9 main rebel groups he can’t afford to win either. Plus no matter who “wins” in Syria Obama will be left to clean up the mess.


An administration that promised voters never to intervene abroad or get dragged into post-conflict stabilization operations may eventually be forced to do both. There’s apparently a price to pay for everything.  The promise to control terror groups by intelligence warfare and drone strikes has revealed its hidden cost:  a massive surveillance apparatus whose vast extent is only slowly being discovered. And yet the President’s defenders ask, with some justice, ‘what was his alternative?’

The alternative was finish Assad’s hash when Saddam was done. Ok, so never mind. That’s a nonstarter with half the population, but it was worth mentioning just so it could be excluded. Then there’s diplomacy? Well that’s what internationalized the war in the first place. The process of forging regional coalitions with Sunni powers and getting everyone involved resulted in — everyone getting involved — including Russia.

Maybe there was a time when America could have handed everyone a fait accompli in the region. “There you are, take it or leave it”. But that opportunity was lost and there are now no good alternatives. What is worse, Obama’s is starting to lose his core base.

“The drop in Obama’s support is fueled by a dramatic 17-point decline over the past month among people under 30, who, along with black Americans, had been the most loyal part of the Obama coalition,” CNN polling director Keating Holland said. He also notes that the president’s approval rating among independent voters had plunged, too, dropping ten points in just one month to 37 percent.


Not only is the President facing immense challenges, he’s also losing the mandate to do anything decisive about it. Becoming a true lame duck. In addition to the financial debt, he’s run up a trust deficit — even among his own supporters. As Glenn Reynolds notes:

But President Obama has been telling us that the war on terror is practically over. In fact, maintaining that argument, pre-election, is why the administration falsely attributed the Benghazi attacks (which were by al-Qaeda) to a YouTube filmmaker who was then hustled off to prison for “probation violations.” So if we’re at war — if it’s still like the months post-9/11 — then why has Obama been saying otherwise? Is he lying?

Lying may be an impolite way to put it. ‘Kicking the can down the road’ sounds a lot better. And that’s what makes Syria so hard to sell either way. After saying the war’s over; after proclaiming a new dawn with the Muslim world; after promising grand bargains with Iran; after touting the glories of the Arab spring and a reset button to Russia then how come Syria? It reminds one of the old Soviet Union where everything steadily got better until it finally collapsed.

Syria, following on the heels of Benghazi, IRS and the NSA — not to mention a whole lot of other unfinished economic business — is reminiscent of multiple organ failure: “infection-> sepsis-> severe sepsis-> Multiple organ dysfunction syndrome”. All the injuries begin to run together. The President’s governance blunders are catching with him pretty much all at once.


Adam Garfinkle writing at American Interest argued that while the alternatives were never very good in Syria the President’s artful can-kicking tied them into the Gordian knot we see today:

It’s not clear that senior Administration officials, certainly to include the President, actually understood a year or so ago that the Syrian crucible was not just about Syria, but also about Iran, and Turkey, and Jordan, Lebanon, Israel…… It’s also not clear that they, any more than their predecessors, had a clue about the history and nature of sectarian cleavages in the region between Sunni and Shi’a Islam.

So the Obama Administration did not lead from behind on Syria. Instead, it sat on its behind—and there is a difference. And though many warned (me, too, for what it’s worth) that, left to its own dynamics, the situation in Syria would probably both get much worse internally and spread externally, the Administration still did nothing, even in a case where its humanitarian inclinations aligned perfectly with strategic interests with regard to Iran. It did nothing even when it had at least some chance of reaching an understanding with the Turks early on in the crisis. It did nothing repeatedly…..if such a thing is logically possible.

But that doesn’t answer the question of what President Obama should do now. The classic approach would be to make common cause with one of the two sides, defeat the common enemy first and then turn on your former partner later. After all, that’s how Truman handled the problem of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia back in the 1940s. Take down the greater evil and then settle scores with the remaining one. But to go down that road Obama would have to explain to the public why there’s a problem. He would have to level with them, quit treating them like low information voters and stop telling them fairy tales.


About 70 years ago two British leaders faced the puzzle of what to tell the public about the problems they confronted. One elected to say, “we have peace in our time.” The other was forced to say within months of the first, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat”.  The sooner the facts are faced, the sooner both parties lay it all out, the cheaper the solution will be. The Narrative’s fine, but nobody ever beat Arithmetic.

The Three Conjectures at Amazon Kindle for $1.99

Storming the Castle at Amazon Kindle for $3.99

No Way In at Amazon Kindle $8.95, print $9.99

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